What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?

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TONY JUNIPER "This extraordinary book tells a powerful story that all people need to understand: Humanity needs nature to thrive. It will open your eyes to unseen connections that shape our lives and determine our wellbeing." PETER SELIGMANN, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, CONSERVATION INTERNATIONAL

WHAT HAS

NATURE EVER DONE

FOR US?

HOW MONEY REALLY DOES GROW ON TREES Foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales


What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?


“This book should be on the essential reading list at schools. Without understanding the essence of life – and this is a fantastically modern romp through it – how can our children be expected to make the right decisions? If we ever needed a book to remind us that we are part of nature, not separate from it, this is it.” Stephanie Hilborne OBE, Chief Executive, The Wildlife Trusts


Sealed World Indispensable Dirt Life from Light Eco-innovation The Pollinators Ground Control Liquid Assets Sunken Billions

Ocean Planet Insurance Natural Health Service False Economy?



WHAT HAS

NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

HOW MONEY REALLY DOES GROW ON TREES

Foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales


© Copyright 2013 by Tony Juniper. All rights reserved. First published in the UK in January 2013 by: Profile Books 3A Exmouth House Pine Street, Exmouth Market London, EC1R OJH What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? © Tony Juniper, 2013 Foreword © HRH The Prince of Wales, 2013 No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher, except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews. Published by Synergetic Press 1 Bluebird Court, Santa Fe, NM 87508 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Juniper, Tony. What has nature ever done for us? : how money really does grow on trees / Tony Juniper ; foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales. pages cm Includes index. ISBN 978-0-907791-48-5 (hardcover) – ISBN 978-0-907791-47-8 – ISBN 0-907791-47-6 1. Environmental responsibility. 2. Environmentalism – Philosophy. 3. Sustainability – Philosophy. 4. Nature – Effect of human beings on. I. Title. GE195.7.J86 2013 304.2--dc23 2013013744 Cover design by Ghost Design Book design by John Cole Typography styling suggestions by Awake Media Editor, N. American edition, Linda Sperling Printed by Friesens Printing, Canada Typeface: Perpetua and Helvetica Condensed


CONTENTS FOREWORD

HRH The Prince of Wales

viii

PROLOGUE CHAPTER 1 CHAPTER 2 CHAPTER 3 CHAPTER 4 CHAPTER 5 CHAPTER 6 CHAPTER 7 CHAPTER 8 CHAPTER 9 CHAPTER 10 CHAPTER 11

Sealed World Indispensable Dirt Life from Light Eco-innovation The Pollinators Ground Control Liquid Assets Sunken Billions Ocean Planet Insurance Natural Health Service False Economy?

1 25 49 75 101 127 149 179 201 217 241 263

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS INDEX

293 297


FOREWORD WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

O

misconceptions of the modern age, and one which has concerned me for more years than I care to remember, is the presumption that Nature can be taken for granted and her needs ignored.There are some who seem to think that only when times are good should we afford the cost of nurturing the natural environment. There are plenty more, I am afraid, who see the process of protecting natural systems as the sort of cost that should be avoided altogether, simply because it actively interferes with development, job creation and economic growth. NE OF THE GRAVEST

This prevailing attitude could not be further from the truth. Nature is, in fact, the source and very basis of our welfare and viii


FOREWORD

economic prosperity. For me, this is so self-evident as to seem ridiculous even to say it. But as countries struggle to meet the enormous economic challenges they face, the biggest one of all remains largely hidden from view. As you will discover in this book, the services and countless benefits to the human economy that come from Nature have an estimated value every year of around double the global Gross Domestic Product, and yet this colossal contribution to human wellbeing is hardly ever mentioned when countries consider how to create future growth. As I have long been trying to point out, this situation cannot remain the case for very much longer. We are reaching a critical turning point when humankind has to realize that people and the human economy are both embedded within Nature’s systems and benevolence. To some extent, this awareness is slowly starting to gain ground in the mainstream of our collective thinking. In part, this is the result of recent scientific studies and discoveries which are being translated into many inspiring examples of practical action. Our dependence on Nature is also slowly being reflected more confidently in those economic policies which enable people to achieve a better balance between keeping Nature’s systems intact and creating economic development that results in more jobs. But if we are to deepen this commitment to Nature’s needs, it is paramount that we adopt a different mind-set; one that veers away from the focus that has dominated the past half century or so. Essentially, we have to become far more joinedup in our thinking and behavior. For example, the so-called “Green Revolution” which began in agriculture during the 1960s and quickly enabled global food production to expand and keep pace with the accelerating growth in population has also, among other things, caused the dangerous depletion of freshwater around the world, made a huge contribution to climate change, caused a massive loss of biodiversity and ix


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

damaged soils worldwide. Biodiversity is absolutely crucial. You cannot simplify Nature’s system and expect it to carry on operating in the way it did before. There is nothing in Nature’s elaborate system which is not necessary, so to take one participant out of the dance leads to the dance breaking down and, sooner or later, this will have a serious impact on the state of human health. This is why these costs have to be taken into account if we are to see what we do in its proper context, and then an approach to food production that avoids these disastrous side effects has to take its place, otherwise we are lost. It is far too easy to believe what we see at first glance – that is, that there are huge economic benefits if we use modern farming techniques and that no alternative which does not have efficiency and profit as its priorities can possibly replace it. But if we stand back, the picture quickly looks a lot less positive. In fact, it looks frighteningly bleak because the predominant approach is effectively cannibalizing its own future by degrading the natural systems it absolutely depends upon. The same picture emerges if you look at the way we regard the economic benefits derived from destroying the world’s tropical rainforests. The soils and minerals that lie beneath the forest and the timber that comes from the trees certainly all have tremendous market values, but what about the huge role they play in soaking up the vast quantities of carbon dioxide produced by power stations, factories, cars and planes? It is a natural service which has recently been calculated to be worth literally trillions of dollars. And remember, they are “rain” forests. Take the forests out of the equation and you very quickly affect how much rain falls from the skies – which, of course, has very serious implications for our ability to generate power and produce food. And yet, we conclude that the forests are worth more to us dead than they are alive! This is an insane example x


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of the kind of short-termism that dominates the present economic world view which, by definition, is obviously not going to help us succeed as a species in the long term. Sooner rather than later the wheels will start to fall off. There are a wealth of examples of how Nature sustains our civilizations and economies – from the oxygen we breathe, to the soil, water and pollinating insects that produce nearly all of our food; from the scavengers that help control disease to the oceans that replenish fish stocks. To understand what Nature does for us every single day of our lives is clearly vital if we are to maintain our welfare and develop in the future.Yet, as I say, these and other natural assets continue to be liquidated as if they are inexhaustible. What has perplexed me for so many years is why we fail to put two and two together and see how dangerous this is. It is surely not for want of good science and reliable information. As the book suggests, it is in part to do with that ancient, instinctive human tendency to grasp the short-term solution because, as huntergatherers, this was once necessary in order to stay alive. It is also perhaps to do with the seemingly impossible task of finding consensus on the kinds of national and international laws and policies that protect Nature, especially when the task depends upon a multilateral or global process. Some of the reasons are to be found on a much deeper level of human experience where there now abounds a disturbing lack of a sense of the sacred. This is very important. If nothing is sacred, most of all Nature, then we create the potential for the perfect kind of storm, to which it will be virtually impossible to adapt, let alone mitigate. This is why I was so pleased to see Tony Juniper’s new book as, for me, it hits the nail firmly on the head when it explores how our economic system is so disastrously misaligned with the realities that enable it to exist in the first place. xi


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

Not only does it provide readers with a clear and compelling explanation as to what Nature does for us, it also offers some very strong examples of how that misalignment can be rectified – and that includes ways in which Nature’s value can be harnessed even within our existing economic approach. It describes simple things, like planting trees in city centers which would help to cool the air while giving city dwellers that contact with Nature which has such immediate psychological benefits.Thus, they would improve wellbeing and reduce the need for expensive air conditioning. On a larger scale, it also describes radical schemes like the one in New York, where the city has been given a modern water treatment system that relies upon water-friendly farming and good forestry practice. This is no small scheme and it depends upon the integrated cooperation of many thousands of stakeholders. The result of such joined-up thinking is the biggest unfiltered public water supply system in the United States, one that initially saved the city some eight billion dollars and has since dramatically slowed down the rise in consumers’ water bills. They have gone up by just nine percent whereas had the city installed conventional treatment systems, that figure would now be nearer one hundred percent. On a larger scale still, the book explains how some countries have begun to integrate natural values into their national accounts. One of the pioneers is the Central American country of Costa Rica which has taken a much more integrated view of how Nature and the economy interact, seeing them as two sides of the same coin. As a result, since the 1980s, not only has Costa Rica more than doubled its forest cover, it has also doubled the per capita income of its citizens. Dramatic examples like this should encourage us to see the tremendous opportunities there are in approaching things in a much more joinedup way. All it needs is the inspiration and unlimited capacity of the human imagination to do so. xii


FOREWORD

One very positive development I have been greatly moved by in recent years, and towards which I hope I have made some small contribution via the activities and projects I have initiated, is the increasingly prominent discussion about what is known in the jargon as “natural capital.â€? This idea defines Nature as, among other things, a set of economic assets which, if managed well, can produce dividends that flow from those assets indefinitely. This is not what generally happens at the moment. Assets such as soils and forests are often simply liquidated as if they do not need to be maintained or replenished, and it surely does not require a financial expert to point out that this is the fastest way to bankruptcy! This shift towards seeing Nature as the provider of a set of economically vital services, rather than resources that can be used up to fuel economic growth is, for me, one of the most important conceptual shifts in history. I am pleased to say that the shift is already underway, but it needs to go much further and happen much faster. I am not so naĂŻve as to imagine this is an easy transition to achieve, especially in such economically challenging times, but perhaps our very fraught economic circumstances at the moment offer exactly the right moment for the world to force this new attitude to break through into the mainstream.

HRH The Prince of Wales

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Biosphere 2


PROLOGUE SEALED WORLD 100: Percent of human support systems dependent on Nature 1: Number of known planets capable of supporting human needs 2 to 4 Billion: Additional people dependent on Nature in 2050

W HAT

HAS

N ATURE

EVER DONE FOR US?Vultures – and,

to be specific, Indian vultures – provide an example.These birds are today virtually extinct across the subcontinent, a fact that has been barely reported in the West, and yet has had huge implications. For when India’s vultures were almost gone, it became apparent that they had been supporting the wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people. The reason was simple. For centuries, India’s vultures performed an essential cleaning function, eating the flesh of the many dead animals that littered the countryside. A hungry flock would clean up the carcass of a dead cow in a matter of minutes, leaving only bones. So when the vultures 1


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

disappeared, and the putrefying fly-ridden corpses were left to rot under the hot Sun, the effects were disastrous and wide-ranging. The Indian vultures had been inadvertently killed off by antiinflammatory drugs injected in cattle and buffalo. When these farm animals died, residues left in their carcasses were ingested by vultures – and it proved lethal to them. This soon became a problem, not least because India’s forty million or so vultures were between them eating about 12 million tonnes* of flesh each year. With no vultures to clean up, there was an explosion in the population of wild dogs, which had more food. More dogs led to more dog bites, and that caused more rabies infections among people. The disease killed tens of thousands, in the process costing the Indian economy a figure estimated in excess of $30 billion. The vultures are just one among thousands of examples of natural services that are (or were) provided for free by Nature, and which are being removed to our cost. That cost is now the subject of a new branch of economics, whereby researchers are beginning to put financial values on Nature. The hope is that through knowing more about the value of Nature it will be possible to create the tools needed to reflect that value in economic transactions. Should this happen on a sufficiently large scale, then the impacts could be profound, for the numbers being generated are huge – in many cases dwarfing the value of more traditionally quantifiable economic activities. Natural services are beginning to attract the attention of not only academic economists and ecologists, but also governments, companies and international agencies. And that is what this book is all about – an explanation of what Nature does for us, why it is so important, and what we can do to ensure Nature keeps on doing it. Some of the material on these subjects is quite technical and buried in academic journals and reports. In an attempt to present *Used throughout this book, tonnes are 1,000 kilograms (equivalent to 2,304.6 pounds). 2


PROLOGUE

an uncluttered narrative I have not cited references in the book but instead compiled a compendium of material at my website – www.tonyjuniper.com. This has the added advantage of taking interested readers directly to much of the source material via links to web pages. This vast and rapidly accumulating body of research I believe signals an emerging new era of debate. For while much of the environmental discussion in recent years has been concerned with climate change, carbon emissions and how to cut them, a new wave of attention is breaking, focused on what Nature does for us (and finding ways to keep it doing what it does). From the coral reefs that protect many coasts to the pollinating insects that help enable much of our food to grow, awareness and attention are switching to the economic value of Nature, and crucially how to protect that value. Before embarking on the journey to explore how these values are essential for our continued welfare and development, I’d like to start by getting some measure on how Nature works, and what it takes to replicate its functions. So our first port of call is to a remarkable experiment – one that might have more relevance to the future than was appreciated even by its visionary founders.

Biosphere 2 During the early 1980s, in the shadow of the Santa Catalina Mountains of southern Arizona, plans were laid for a remarkable and unique experiment that would shed light on how our planet sustains life: the creation of a self-contained biosphere. This ambitious scheme eventually came to fruition a decade later, when for two years a group of eight people became the first in history 3


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

to live in a manmade biosphere. It was a project that threw into perspective just how complex, elaborate and linked is our own natural biosphere – and just what it would take if we had to try and replicate or recreate it. The Earth’s biosphere is basically the sum of all the different living systems and the relationships they have with each other and with the non-living parts of our world, such as the water, air and rocks that enable them to function. It is the self-regulating zone of life, shielded from the icy vacuum of space by the atmosphere on which it depends. For the first manmade creation of a biosphere, the terrain chosen was that part of the southwestern USA where the giant saguaro cacti so reminiscent of classic Western films grow. It is a remarkable environment. From hot flower-rich bushlands, the mountains rise to above 2,700 meters, where snow fields accumulate in winter, feeding streams and pools as they melt in summer, Nature abounds. On the mountain slopes, where it is cool and wet, there are lush forests of oaks. Further up still are stands of Ponderosa Pines. The unique combination of conditions sustains an impressive diversity of animals and plants. Orange-crowned warblers, broad-tailed hummingbirds and cordilleran flycatchers inhabit the oak forest. At higher levels, pygmy nuthatches and northern ravens are found. The Santa Catalina range lies just to the north of Tucson, a teeming city of over half a million souls, with grids of traffic-packed streets, separated by blocks of air-conditioned buildings. These two worlds – one set out on right angles of asphalt, concrete, steel and glass, the other a complex web of cycles, patterns, loops, feedbacks and flows – seem utterly distinct, yet are in fact very much connected. Both systems – one of forests and deserts, the other of roads, buildings, homes and shops – are contained inside the same biosphere. All the food, water, fuel and raw materials needed to keep 4


PROLOGUE

the city’s vibrant economy humming along are derived from the biosphere, and the nonliving systems that interact with it. The Biosphere complex – named Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 being the Earth’s) – stands about an hour north of Tucson, in a quiet and remote area in the foothills on the far side of the mountains. It looks like a vast greenhouse, made from glass and steel, with a rectangular area attached to six half-cylinder shaped buildings, over an area the size of two and a half football fields. A pair of large white domed structures flanks the main building, while a scatter of high tech facilities nearby house research apparatus, power and cooling plants and student residences. It is an impressive sight, conjuring in the mind’s eye a twenty-first-century Moon base as seen from the perspective of a 1970s science fiction film director. Built between 1987 and 1991, Biosphere 2 was constructed to study the complex web of relationships and interactions that sustain the Earth’s life systems, while at the same time supporting eight humans. Its central characteristic was that it would be completely cut off from the rest of the world. During construction over 6,000 glass panels were laid on a steel space frame. The floor was made of concrete, but to ensure a tight seal, this was covered with corrosion-resistant stainless steel. It was totally airtight, far more so than the space-training facilities at the Kennedy Space Center, and thirty times more tightly sealed than the Space Shuttles then being sent outside the Earth’s atmosphere by NASA. It set records as the most tightly sealed large-scale system ever constructed. To enable the system to stabilize air pressure, special variable volume chambers called ‘lungs’ were developed. These were part of the closed system and comprised underground cave-like structures connected to large rubber diaphragms. Air moved into or out of each chamber from or to the biosphere structure as the membranes 5


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

expanded and contracted, gently rising and falling to keep the air pressure inside Biosphere 2 in perfect equilibrium with that outside.This aspect of the complex would prevent the sealed structure from either exploding or imploding as a result of the pressure changes caused by the daily cooling and heating of the system as the sun rose and set. Below ground was laid the technical infrastructure of winter heating and summer cooling pipes. Electrical power was supplied from an on-site natural gas generator via airtight power cable connections. The idea of creating a fully sealed biosphere was the dream of John Allen. He was interested in long-distance space travel and whether it would be possible to maintain a biosphere that could sustain people in isolation for years at a time. He was also motivated by better understanding how life systems work here on Earth. He had spent decades thinking about biospheres and how they worked, and by 1984 had completed the concept for Biosphere 2. He was 54 and in that year founded a company called Space Biospheres Ventures, to set about the gargantuan task of construction. Allen’s focus was somewhat different from most mainstream scientists. Typically, biological and ecological research is devoted to better understanding the individual parts of systems, whether they are genes, species or even ecosystems. Allen wanted to know how the whole thing worked. There was a name for his relatively new branch of science – biospherics: the study of biospheres. It went beyond ecology, to a level where the functioning of all ecosystems together is the subject under investigation. For this purpose, he was less interested in materials and things, and more interested in relationships – the interactions that enabled a self-sustaining biosphere to function. An additional research aim was to look at biospheres in relation to other systems and to find out how to best achieve harmonization between cultural, technological and ecological systems. 6


PROLOGUE

This was a project of vast ambition but Allen was equipped with the diverse range of interests and experience to make it possible. A traveler, veteran of the Korean War and a volunteer at a mountain medical center during the Vietnam War, he was also an actor, writer and poet. He was a businessman and had been awarded an MBA from Harvard. His work had taken him to all parts of the world, and on his travels he had been inspired by the diversity of living systems – from deserts to the open ocean and from the rainforests to the fields and farms of Tuscany. He was also an engineer and scientist and well versed in the technical challenges of building and maintaining a fully closed system. He had been influenced by many thinkers, including the Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky, who during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had made great advances in understanding biospherics at a planetary level. Far ahead of his time, Vernadsky was hardly heard of in the West, in part because little of his work had been translated into English. Allen visited Russia to find out more and to learn of experiments undertaken there as part of the Soviet space program. One study, called Bios 3, was taken forward during the 1970s and 1980s at the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. In this program two or three people had been kept healthy in a closed system for six months.They had breathed recycled air, drank recycled water and produced about half their food inside a sealed unit. The Russians had hundreds of doctors looking at a great mass of health data collected from the cosmonauts who took part in the study. The Bios 3 scientists, as well as those at the main Russian space research facility in Moscow, made their data available and sent researchers to work with the Biosphere 2 team. This input proved invaluable for Allen and his team in showing how it would be possible to keep the eight scientists healthy and safe inside his complex. Some 7


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

had predicted that bacterial and fungal infections and trace gas accumulation would soon damage the wellbeing of humans living in a closed system, but the Russian data suggested otherwise. To inspire the design for Biosphere 2, Allen took his construction team to major architectural sites around the world. They visited Chartres Cathedral, the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard near Nîmes and walked the silent lines of ancient stones at Carnac in France. They studied the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. They went to the Taj Mahal in India and the Pantheon in Rome; to Uxmal in the Yucatán of Mexico, and to the Inca city of Machu Picchu high in the Andes of Peru. They searched for the designs that would best underline the purpose of the life system they planned to construct. When I met up with Allen, he was 82, but still retained all his passion for Biosphere 2.Wearing a well-worn brown leather aviator’s jacket, his blue eyes dart and sparkle as he told me its story. “It was initially a Russian and American joint venture,” he began. “It was the time of the Cold War and cooperation with the Russians was only made possible by an agreement between Presidents Ford and Brezhnev that made an exception on certain aspects of space research. We signed a deal with the Russians at the Royal Society, London. It was organized by Keith Runcorn, the man who first set out the mechanics of continental drift.” Allen and his team expended a great deal of effort in seeking out the correct site for such an ambitious venture. It would need to be accessible, at the correct latitude and with sufficient sunlight to enable the system to work. After a long search the team settled for Arizona. “We bought a ranch near the Santa Catalina Mountains. It was an old Motorola research center,” he recalls. Having acquired a suitable location, Space Biospheres Ventures set about the vast design challenge. This went far beyond architectural questions. Temperature had to be maintained within specific 8


PROLOGUE

limits, while all repairs to apparatus had to be done in a machine shop inside the sealed complex. No spare parts would be available from outside once the system was sealed. The glass structure had to be strong enough to resist storms, hail and tornadoes, but not cut down the sunlight that would be the source of all the productivity that would sustain life inside – including the people. Much of their attention was devoted to landscape design, in order to make the most of both light and water, and also to ensure the environment inside Biosphere 2 sustained the human spirit. From an outcrop of limestone rocks inside the complex were views of the tower which rose from the center of the roof of the main structure. Looking the other way, the occupants could enjoy haunting views of the northern Sonoran Desert. In quiet moments they might imagine echoes of the Apache Wars which sparked off there in 1851, ending only in 1886 with the death of Geronimo. Inside this remarkable facility seven biomes were constructed. Biomes are the building blocks of a biosphere – the largest unit of the Earth system, short of the entire planet. Allen is very clear as to why this was the correct level for planning the complex. “The biome was the key unit. Ecosystems are way down, three levels down in fact. From the biosphere, to biomes and bioregions, you come to ecosystems next. Ecosystems can change, and quickly. We need to see ecosystems as part of the wider system. Ecosystems are very often transient features of the landscape. Biosphere 2 was a model for lifting up our analysis, to see the bigger picture.” With this objective in mind, models of five world biomes were planned, based on rainforest, coral reef, mangrove wetlands, desert and savannah.Two other biomes set out to replicate manmade systems – agricultural landscapes and an urban area. The farming biome was developed first, then the wilderness biomes, and finally Biosphere 2’s analogue of a city. Once the broad design of the complex was complete, Allen 9


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

handed over leadership of the project to his trusted colleague Margaret Augustine. Allen wished to concentrate on science and engineering matters and to become more involved with the detail of how the system would work. He was not short of challenges, not least in relation to how the biomes would be built up. Teams of experts then set about detailed design of the biomes, choosing the species and the types of ecosystems that would be included. By far the most complex and challenging to design were the agricultural, rainforest and coral reef biomes. Abigail Alling, a marine biologist and whale specialist, was in charge of the coral reef, ocean and mangrove systems. She found particular inspiration in Caribbean marine ecosystems, where her team studied corals in the reef lying off the coast of Belize, though the living corals were collected at Akumal in the Yucatán of Mexico, due to its proximity to Arizona. The distance was a major factor, as the coral would need to be transported quickly, complete with life support systems to prevent it from dying, and an ocean system to which it would be introduced up and running ready to take it. The Mexicans organized a special police escort so as to speed the trucks along as quickly as they could. The coral arrived safely and was introduced to the waiting marine system. The mangrove trees and other wetland plants were collected in Florida and also trucked by road to Arizona. Sir Ghillean Prance, then at the NewYork Botanical Gardens and later director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, was a key adviser in the design of the rainforest system and was aided by leading Harvard rainforest ecologist Richard Evans Schultes, who is widely seen as the originator of ethnobotany – the study of the relationships between plants and human societies. Prance came up with the design for a cloud rainforest inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. He was also assisted in this endeavor by the government of Guyana, which arranged the collection of suitable plants. 10


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Lowland riverine forest of the kind that floods each year in the Amazon Basin was also included in the rainforest biome. Water would be the life-blood of Biosphere 2, and the rainforests at the heart of the system would be vital in ensuring its continuing circulation. Reflecting on the challenges that were encountered in creating the biomes, Allen told me that “Rainforests are the most complex – probably by orders of magnitude more than some others. Prance and Schultes did a great job. They looked at the rainforest as a total system, including the Indians.” Linda Leigh, a professional range ecologist, led work on the terrestrial wilderness biomes, including the desert, which was based on the fog deserts of Baja, California. She also assisted with the development of the savannah, which was in part inspired by Allen’s travels in the 1960s across East Africa. Biosphere 2 would contain a total of about 3,800 different kinds of animals and plants. In order to maximize the ability of different bits of the system to continue functioning in the artificial conditions, an approach called “species packing” was adopted. This basically set out to ensure that if one kind of animal or plant were lost, another that performed a similar function in a particular ecosystem, such as part of the ocean or rainforest, was there to continue its work – for example, as a predator, or food for another species. A high level of extinction was expected in this microcosm and the strategy to maximize diversity from the start would, it was believed, lead to more resilience and long-term stability. The agricultural system was designed by the Environmental Research Laboratory of the University of Arizona, with consultation from the Institute of Ecotechnics, and managed inside by Sally Silverstone and Jane Poynter. Sally grew up in London but had worked in Kenya and India with farmers in programs to boost local food security. She had also worked with the Institute of Ecotechnics on a sustainable 11


WHAT HAS NATURE EVER DONE FOR US?

forestry project in a rainforest in Puerto Rico. Jane was also British, with an agricultural background including experience of farming in harsh climates in the USA and Australia, where she had mastered crop propagation under very challenging climatic conditions. The plan was to create an ecologically stable, disease resistant, tropical agriculture biome that was totally sustainable. It would need to be highly productive, supplying all nutritional and health needs, and easy to operate. It took three years before the system was sealed to develop the complex soils needed to get productivity up and the plants used to the growing seasons inside. Some 1,500 different crop cultivars were studied on site and at the University of Arizona Environmental Research Lab before choosing 150 of the most productive that they believed would best sustain the needs and health of the human crew. Allen was very clear that the agricultural team should not copy modern farming techniques that are based on heavy chemical inputs, and instead should favor conventional methods. For health reasons, no toxic chemicals were to be used and crop pests and diseases would need to be controlled through biological means. Toxic chemicals would be unthinkable in a tightly sealed world with very fast cycling times – what was in the water would quickly be in the drinking water.With this steer, the team set out to mimic farming systems that had been used for centuries and longer in Asia, Polynesia, Europe and the Americas. By choosing several of these systems to work alongside one another, it was believed all dietary elements could be provided. As well as a wide variety of nutritious crops – including rice, bananas, papayas, wheat, sweet potatoes, beats, peanuts, cowpea beans and vegetables – the farming system was carefully planned so as to integrate animal husbandry. Domesticated animals that were to accompany the crew on their two-year mission included four 12


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pygmy goats from the plateau region of Nigeria, thirty-five hens and three roosters (a mix of Indian jungle fowl, Japanese silky bantam, and hybrids of these), three small pigs (two sows and one boar), and tilapia fish grown in the rice and azolla pond system that originated thousands of years ago in China. The chickens, goats and pigs would not only provide meat, eggs and milk, but also companionship. They would also recycle much of the tough plant material that humans could not digest or use in other ways. And the agricultural system was not only designed around the nutritional requirements of the crew. The landscape was carefully planned for their aesthetic needs. It was, in particular, inspired by views that Allen had seen on visits to Tuscany, where he observed that the growing of food had been beautifully incorporated into the landscape. Allen and his team were acutely aware that at the heart of the functioning of the terrestrial biomes, and the agricultural one in particular, was one of the least known natural systems of all – the soil. The dark world of soil swarms with numberless microorganisms, worms and fungal threads that challenge even the most thoughtful ecologist with a vast complexity of relationships. These interactions are not only vital for plant growth and digesting and recycling nutrients, but are also important for keeping water and the atmosphere healthy. A never-ending dance of give and take between soil and air helps determine atmospheric composition.The soil would be a vital aspect in determining whether or not the experiment would work, and great care was taken to get it right. Allen ordered 500,000 earthworms to be introduced. “That was straight from Charles Darwin,” he says. “The worms thrived, and so did the crops.” The Biosphere 2 team was also aware of the fundamental importance of bacteria in shaping the state of the system they were building, not least the role they would play in the soil. Bacteria are engaged in a constant process of genetic exchange, enabling them to quickly 13


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adapt to changing conditions, and to change conditions themselves. This is one of the most dynamic aspects of living systems. In order to enable full adaptability in the system as it settled down and changed over time, Biosphere 2 was equipped with a broad set of bacteria and dozens of soil types. This would enable biological responses to changes that might take place, such as a build-up of methane gas. If there were bacteria present that were able to metabolize these gases, then that would help ensure the stability of the system. Allen believed that by starting with a wide range of bacteria it would be more likely that their orgiastic gene exchanges would help move the system towards a more steady state. The carefully designed natural systems would of course be vital for sustaining the people, including in their mini-urban area. Biosphere 2’s analogue of a cityscape, where the crew would live and work, was based on leading designs that would meet both the practical needs of the crew and their psychological wellbeing. All materials were carefully selected to avoid any toxic build-up once the system was closed.The Wool Bureau sponsored fitting of 100 percent wool in carpets and other fabrics so as to prevent any chemical leakage that might accompany the use of synthetic materials. Mark Nelson, one of the eight Biosphere 2 crew who would be sealed inside the system when it was ready, was struck by the different mind-set that had to be adopted during this design stage: “The process of designing the biosphere was incredibly interesting. Engineers and top ecologists hardly ever sit down in the same room and design something together. The engineers realized they could do brilliant and challenging engineering when it dawned on them that by contrast with their normal work their job was not only to protect humans, which is what they generally do, but to protect the life which sustains the humans. It was to be not just a stunning piece of design and engineering, but would have to sustain the microbes 14


PROLOGUE

and everything else, if the system was to be healthy and supportive of life.” Mark Van Thillo was in charge of the vast array of machines and equipment needed to keep the vital infrastructure working. The internet was not yet in widespread use, but technology was harnessed to create what was probably the first truly paperless office. Taber MacCallum took charge of setting up a cutting-edge analytical lab to support the scientific investigations that would be undertaken. Roy Walford prepared the top-level medical facilities that would permit the critical real-time monitoring of the health of the biospherian team. It was in the design of the living and working facilities where links between the biosphere (the world of life) and ethnosphere (the world of human culture) were most obvious. Allen set out to ensure that the world of Nature and the world of human needs and desires were designed together. Six of the biomes would need to flourish so as to support the seventh: “the city.” This would need to meet human needs while avoiding toxic build-up, at the same time as all waste and water were recycled. Conditions would need to remain stable within life-friendly boundaries, and Biosphere 2’s equivalent of an urban area would have to play its part in promoting such an outcome. Allen’s idea was to promote co-creation, whereby both systems thrived and where one (the culture of the people) did not parasitize the other (Nature). This was in part a philosophical approach, but also a very practical one. When they were sealed in, the crew would not be able to act as if detached from their actions. They would need to pay attention to how they lived. Due to the small scale of Biosphere 2, compared with that of an entire planet, the cycles that supported life would work much faster, and the consequences of any changes or decisions taken by the crew would thus be seen much quicker. 15


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For example, Allen expected that after closure the carbon cycle would work at least 1,000 times faster than outside. To quickly pick up on changes in environmental conditions and technical functioning, more than 1,000 sensors of different kinds were distributed throughout Biosphere 2. These would be vital both for gathering data and in ensuring the crew was kept out of danger. To achieve the complete integration of the system so that it worked as a single unit, it was designed both from the bottom-up as well as the top-down. From top-down the biosphere would comprise seven major biomes, made up of bioregions and ecosystems. From the bottom-up the team worked with microbes, to larger organisms, to biochemical functions, to communities of animals and plants, to ecosystems, landscapes, bioregions, biomes and finally the biosphere itself. The whole system was pieced together from the small to the large, as well as from the large to the small. And the biosphere was carefully designed so as to interact with the air and water in order for the whole thing to be self-sustaining. While modern thinking is often based on the idea of “the whole being greater than the sum of the parts,” Biosphere 2 went a big step further. The design aim in this case was for “the whole to be seen in all of the parts.” As the system was assembled, the biomes and bioregions invisibly synergized with light and microbes to create a healthy and sweet atmosphere. But could eight people live in this closed microcosm, complete with their mini-city, and come out healthy at the end of a two-year experiment? Would the farming system produce enough food? Were there unforeseen sources of trace gases that might render the experiment unviable? Many experts predicted the rapid demise and death of some of the biomes. Others questioned how long the system would last before it suffered an ecological collapse. 16


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Here on Earth, They Left Earth In September 1991, Biosphere 2 was ready. A 1,900-square-meter rainforest had been created. An 850-square-meter ocean, complete with coral reef, had been prepared. A 450-square-meter mangrove wetland, a 1,300-square-meter savannah grassland and a 1,400square-meter fog desert were all functioning well.The 2,500-squaremeter agricultural area was producing the food that would nourish the team.The living quarters were ready. Apart from some electrical power, heating and cooling supplied from outside, once the doors were closed the only things that would go into Biosphere 2 were sunlight and information. As the Sun came up on September 26, a Crow Indian medicine man, Tibetan Geshe and Toltec Curandera sang prayers. Then Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo and Linda Leigh passed into Biosphere 2. The airtight doors were sealed behind them, and they embarked on a two-year experiment in which they would live and work inside a closed world, one designed to be a microcosm of the Earth and its systems. They would be reliant on the little pieces of carefully selected captive Nature held inside the complex, to recycle waste, purify water, maintain the air and produce their food. By the time of closure, Biosphere 2 had become a major tourist attraction (Marlon Brando was among celebrity visitors) and the crew entered amid a blaze of publicity. They were a picture of health and vitality. In jumpsuits reminiscent of the super-trained Space Shuttle teams who had made history the decade before, this crew, while earthbound, was to embark on an even more unique voyage. Like the others, Mark Nelson was prepared for the experiment through a short spell in a test module that was set up as a tiny version of Biosphere 2. He describes his brief taste of what was to come as 17


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“An astounding visceral experience. It was only the size of a living room, and at any one time you could see all of the plants that were providing the air you were breathing and a big part of your food. I knew about all these things intellectually, but I wasn’t expecting the extreme pleasure of being so totally connected to the system. I was part of that living system, and extraordinarily thankful it was working to provide all the services I needed. That 24 hours was one of the most astounding experiences I ever had. It really whetted my appetite.” Despite this, Nelson still found “going in was kind of a shock.” He remembers how “We’d been growing food, testing systems and working together. We’d been working with hordes of scientists and technicians and suddenly when we closed that airlock there were just eight of us in this amazing living system. I went in there with the greatest possible excitement. At the time it was one great leap into the unknown. Some of the technicians were making private bets that we’d be out of there by Christmas, because of carbon dioxide levels.” The composition of the air was indeed vital. Also of fundamental importance for their day-to-day wellbeing was a healthy diet. They started with some food grown in Biosphere 2 prior to full closure, but the agricultural system produced more than 80 percent of their food during the first year of the mission. Although their diet included a wide variety of nutritious crops, the team suffered from hunger and lost weight. In the second year, caloric intake increased and they put back on some of the weight they had lost. Despite the ups and downs in food availability, their health was excellent; indeed, certain indicators dramatically improved, such as a large drop in cholesterol levels and improved functioning of immune systems. The success of the crew in increasing food production was in large part down to how they became more skillful in using the ulti18


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mate source of productivity in Biosphere 2: namely, sunlight. “Most farmers are limited by rainfall,” recalls Nelson, “but for us the main limiting factor was sunfall. Any place with sun and without a plant was a waste and you soon fixed that. This didn’t only help with the food situation, but also the carbon dioxide problem. We spent two years filling every possible void with plants. We grew about a tonne more food in the second year, in large part from spaces that were previously underutilized.” Despite the many strategies that were designed to promote the stability of the systems enclosed in the glass bubble, major changes were soon noted. As expected, carbon dioxide concentrations in the air fluctuated wildly. In the air outside the sealed system, the concentration of this gas was at about 370 parts per million (ppm), and although it was going up (and still is) by a couple of parts per million per year (it reached 396 ppm in 2012), the concentrations of this greenhouse gas are otherwise relatively stable. Inside Biosphere 2, daily fluctuations were as much as 600 ppm, with a drop during the day as plants took up carbon dioxide, followed by a rise at night when plants naturally released it. Nelson says that “We could sit in the control room and watch the changing conditions. Every fifteen minutes or so the carbon dioxide level would be recalculated, and even when you couldn’t see through a window you knew when a cloud had gone in front of the sun because the rate of CO2 decline would go down as photosynthesis went down.” Bigger still was the seasonal fluctuation in concentration, with wintertime levels at 4,000 – 4,500 ppm and in summer around 1,000. The scientists worked hard to keep carbon dioxide levels more stable, through controlling irrigation water to help fast-growing plants to more quickly remove CO2 from the air. They also harvested plant material from the savannah so as to store it and the carbon it contained. 19


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Less expected was a temporary build-up of trace gases. Even though every care was taken to avoid materials that might release toxic gases, soon after closure something was found to be leaking them. Nelson recalls that “We detected a rise in a trace gas while doing an air analysis and the scientists outside told us that trace gas came from PVC glue or solvents. We fanned out, searching until in a dark corner of the technosphere basement someone found a small bottle of glue. The top had been cross-threaded when it had been closed, so it was releasing gases that we could detect. We resealed it and put it aside and then that gas began to decline.” More worrying from the point of view of the welfare of the crew inside was the change seen in oxygen levels. Starting with a normal atmospheric concentration for this gas of just below 21 percent, levels fell steadily, and after sixteen months reached 14.5 percent. For the biospherians this was equivalent to the levels of oxygen found at about 4,000 meters above sea level and caused headaches and fatigue, among other symptoms. To begin with it wasn’t clear why the rise in CO2 levels was happening. One suspected source was the activity of soil microorganisms. It was thought these tiny life-forms broke down carbonbased molecules in the soil more quickly than anticipated, and when carbon atoms were liberated from the chemical bonds which had locked them into the soil’s organic material, they united with the oxygen in the air to form CO2. This process, it was thought, might lead to an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide while reducing levels of oxygen. Carbon dioxide levels did not rise as much as expected, however, and experiments revealed that another factor was at work in contributing to the changes measured in the air: CO 2 was being absorbed by areas of exposed concrete inside Biosphere 2. Rather like calcium-rich rocks in the real world, CO2 was being laid down 20


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as calcium carbonate in Biosphere 2’s equivalent of geological deposits. Looking back, Allen’s view is that the “biggest engineering mistake we made was in leaving the bare concrete. We didn’t paint it and so CO2 molecules went in, carrying out oxygen. There was a drop in the oxygen. It took sixteen months, but the levels steadily dropped to the point where people were getting uncomfortable.” It was decided to boost oxygen levels artificially so as to protect the health of the biospherians. Nelson recalls that “people looking at us from the outside said it was like watching slow motion. This was in part because we were on a low calorie diet, but also because of the oxygen. It got so low that we had to inject some oxygen into one of the lungs to top it up in the facility.When it got down to about 14 percent we all trooped down there and the oxygen in the lung was around 25 percent, before it was released throughout Biosphere 2. People started laughing and running, and then I realized I hadn’t heard a running foot in three or four months. Being in there when the oxygen was topped up really made you appreciate what you take for granted – clean air, water and food.Without the biosphere there would be no free oxygen in the air. It’s a stunning conclusion, but in there you really knew it. I went down into the lung like a 95-year-old and it was like decades of age went off the body. How many people thank the biosphere for oxygen?” It was not only in the air that unplanned changes were observed. Some rainforest species grew quickly but suffered from weakness. The same thing happened with the woody species growing in the savannah. This was because of the lack of the winds that in Nature help produce strong and resilient wood. The fog desert began to look more like California chaparral. The mangrove did well and grew rapidly, but was different from such a system in the real world, 21


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with far less undergrowth, probably because the space frames reduced the level of sunlight. Among the fauna, some of the vertebrate species that had been sealed in, such as the birds, ocean fish and reptiles, became extinct or greatly decreased in number. Many of the pollinating insects died out. There was a population boom in pest species, including cockroaches (although happily these undertook some pollinating functions). Several species of ant that had been deliberately introduced to help maintain the rainforest declined drastically, and were replaced by a local species that had been sealed in with no one noticing. There were changes in the ocean. Due to the rapid growth of algae the scientists had to enter the water and remove these plants from the corals by hand to prevent the reef dying. As a result of carbon dioxide being absorbed into the sea, levels of carbonic acid built up, making the water more acidic. Calcium was added to the seawater to counter this effect as it posed a threat to the whole ocean system and had to be dealt with before serious consequences resulted, including the potential death of the corals, which would not be able to function properly in overly acidic conditions. Despite these ecological shifts, the crew remained healthy and collected a vast body of data, and on September 26, 1993 – exactly two years after they’d entered Biosphere 2 – they emerged. In addition to shining light on innumerable aspects of how life systems function, they had shown how a creative and healthy human culture can be sustained by a small piece of functioning Nature. The eightperson crew had thrived on 2,000 square meters of farmland, a tiny bit of atmosphere and a small quantity of water. They were the first successful voyagers to another biosphere. Mark Nelson looks back on those two years and says the experiment gave an important message: “Biosphere 2 helped bring home the fact that humans don’t come in discreet packages that are outside 22


PROLOGUE

of a biosphere. To live inside that system and to actually feel it in your body was an amazing experience. Your body understood that you shouldn’t damage the plants – it was inconceivable, and you didn’t need to be reminded.” It seems that the profound messages embodied in the experiment were also noticed by a wider public. “I think for many of the people who came by to see us, it touched a nerve. We had people visiting, almost like pilgrims. It was extraordinarily touching,” he says. John Allen was delighted with the success of the mission. “They lived in there for two years and left the system more beautiful and self-sustaining than when they went in.” He remains especially proud of their achievements with the agricultural biome. “Half an acre supported eight people for two years, with a half-day working that little piece of land and half the day doing other work. If you scale that up, you could support 10,000 people per square mile with a high-grade diet. Record production was achieved in Biosphere 2, rivaling the highest yields of modern farming.” Perhaps most important of all, Biosphere 2 provided a powerful and practical lesson as to how our biosphere is the only life support system we have at our disposal. In addition to the demonstration that nonpolluting agriculture, without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, could be so productive, the experiment demonstrated how it is possible to design a technosphere that was in the service of life, in harmony with the biosphere. This unique experiment also illustrated the limits to human activity, and what could be safely undertaken before life sustaining systems begin to show stress and malfunction. Having completed their planned work, Allen and his team ceded ownership of Biosphere 2 during a second closure experiment, which began in March 1994. Although this was planned to last until January 1995, it ended earlier. There remains some controversy as to why 23


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the second closure was terminated. Although not involved directly, Allen recalls how “everything was running well initially, and then it was shut down after just six months. No reason was given. I suspect they had problems with the soil.” Later, management of the complex was taken over by Columbia University. It is today maintained as a research facility by the University of Arizona. The pioneering Earth modeling system built at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains back in the 1980s was named Biosphere 2 because Biosphere 1 was already in existence.You, I and everyone else are participants within it. It is the Earth’s biosphere, and it is the only one of its kind that we know for sure exists. Biosphere 1 has some fundamental similarities with Biosphere 2, most obviously in that it, too, is a sealed system, and like the facility in the northern Sonora Desert, its only major input is sunlight. The rest of this book is devoted to that miraculous system: the sealed world upon which we and all known life depends. We begin our voyage through Biosphere 1 from the starting point that is so fundamental for so much of life on land – with what might be called the indispensable dirt. The soil.

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